Serious Christianity 8: Making a Retreat – Treasures of Darkness

In the last fifteen years or so I’ve enjoyed working with Christians from Pentecostal churches and introducing them to elements of my own tradition that are new to them, just as they have challenged and encouraged me in my understanding and experience of the faith. Among the greatest gifts I have received from them is the gift of fasting as a serious discipline of prayer. I wrote about this on my previous blog and will move that post to this blog in due course: for now, it is here.

One of the elements in my own practice that I am often asked about is retreats. Where should I go? What do you do?

Below is a a long piece in three parts. In the first I make some observations about retreats. It is not a “How To” guide to retreats, jut some random thoughts I have had while being on retreat this week (the week of Advent 3, 2019). The second part is a rambling, stream of consciousness note-book of this retreat. I have been making retreats since I was fifteen. For many of the retreats I’ve made I have kept a notebook. I have twenty-seven of them, some more complete than others. They are not really journals, often consisting of not much more than a series of quotes on whatever I have been reading or reflecting on. I’m not sure they show much ‘progress’ as such but they do show change. They are very useful sources of quotes, thoughts and research over the years.

I am not expecting anyone to read every word of the notebook below. Scan it and it will give you the pattern of what I do and the way I keep a notebook. I have edited for publication, omitting some of the self-reflection on my life at the moment and my experiences in prayer as well as mentions of the living. Occasionally I have added rather more explanation than I would for myself.

I decided that the best way to answer “What do you do on retreat?” is the format here, a sort of timetable with notes. I realise that I probably learned this style from the journals of Thomas Merton, of which this is a pale imitation.

I have removed references to intercessory prayer although that is a big part of what I do on retreat. The formal prayer elements of the retreat (Office, Mass, Meditation, Rosary, lectio) should be understood within the opportunity this intense Christian living gives for spontaneous praise and, especially important for me, expressing this in tongues. This is an important part of retreat for me. The opportunity retreat provides to pay attention more closely is always a spark for praise.

I read a lot in an ordinary week so a retreat is a chance to read intensely too. Often I have picked a book (part of the Philokalia, Camus’ The Rebel, Julian of Norwich, The Imitation Of Christ, Wesley’s Hymns, The Rule of the Jerusalem Community, Herbert’s poetry, have all been topics in the past). Sometimes I choose a biblical book, Romans, Revelation, the Gospel of John, the Psalms have all been retreat topics. 

This year has been Isaiah – all 66 chapters. But the length hasn’t seemed to matter using Robert Alter’s beautiful translation, Hebrew Scriptures (an essential translation). On retreat I have read multiple chapters in place of the lectionary readings at each Office and used in-between time for study.

I also generally have a fiction book on the go for reading just before sleep. Oh, and the ever present in my life: poetry.

“It is quite cogent how psalms in choir, how prophecy and gospel, how all great poetry, nurtures prayer; equally cogent are prayer and poetry. They can do without one another, and often do, but not as well. Like kissing cousins, you have to keep them apart sometimes or they will get to scrapping, get in each other’s way, get to too much kissing.”

Paul Quenon (In Praise of the Useless Life)

That is, I realise, quite a lot of words. I try and make sure that my retreat reading is not new, first-time, reading, but going deeper with stuff I have read previously. I didn’t quite manage that this year with some of the commentary on Isaiah but, of course, Isaiah is not new to me!

Please don’t read anything here (apart from one or two comments, notably on alcohol) as my saying this is how you should do your retreat. It’s how I do it, some of the ideas might work for you some not.

Finally, I end with a section of photographs of the books I have used on Isaiah for those who are interested.

Where?

There are various ‘retreat houses’, generally these are best for led retreats where there will be talks each day and a set fee. I have enjoyed leading this style of retreat very much but I prefer a bit more solitude when I am on retreat.

– Monasteries

Most of my retreats have been made at monasteries of one sort or another. Most have guest houses. It is good to have worship going on to join in with. Some guest houses are pretty sociable places so that they may not suit everyone.

– Walsingham

I have made my retreat at the Shrine of Walsingham four times. Always off season in November. It actually works quite well. Meals will involve talking in the refectory and some other chatting around the place, the Bull has to be resisted but the accommodation is good, there are plenty of walks nearby and a pattern of worship to join in with.

– Cottages

Borrowing, or if you have the money, renting a cottage somewhere is another option. I quite like self-catering, a balance to the reading, and being in the middle of nowhere. I’ve done this a few times as well and it has worked.

– Monastery of the Holy Trinity at Crawley Down

This is where I have made most retreats although with a. gap of a few years at one stage. There is a guest wing with shared bathrooms that works well although the walls are paper thin so chanting or praying out loud wouldn’t go down well. The community’s worship has Orthodox influences and is very prayerful, there are very many walks in the neighbourhood. They also have hermitages in the woods which are perfect in every way.  As described below.

As I write I am staying in one of the three hermitages at the Monastery of the Holy Trinity, Crawley Down in West Sussex. I have been visiting the monastery since I was eighteen. Usually staying in the guest wing but occasionally in one of these hermitages in the woods. They are self-contained with a little kitchen, shower room and one room with a bed for everything else. They overlook the largest of the ponds in these woods, created for the iron smelting works that was here in the sixteenth century. Now the only disturbances in the woods are the dog walkers from the nearby housing estates.

Food is provided for residents of the hermitages in Red Riding Hood style baskets just before lunch each day.  A hot lunch and enough food for an evening meal and breakfast. 

I am self-catering, mainly because I am trying to sort out some food allergies that have been bothering me for the last few weeks. But it has the advantage of allowing fasting without fuss.

The monastic community, the Community of the Servants of the Will of God, pray Vigils, Lauds, Eucharist, Sext, Vespers each day and shared Jesus Prayer several evenings a week. Sometimes I join them for some or all of that. This time I am doing my own thing liturgically.

– Home

Some people make retreats at home. Sometimes there is no choice. I don’t think it is as ideal as being away from home but there could be ways of turning off the phone and internet and making space.

When / how long?

The pressure to cut away a retreat time is enormous. I really think six or more days are needed. But just before I came away I was persuaded to do Sunday cover on what had been due to be the last day of my retreat. It is hard. Even more so for those with families and children. Obviously any time, even a few hours or one day is better than nothing, but generally I think the longer the better. There is a rhythm to a week or more that doesn’t seem to work for shorter periods. That rhythm includes a squirming point when I wonder why I am wasting my time and just want to go home.

Books?

Some writers on retreats suggest that only the Bible, or a single devotional book should be allowed. Catherine de Hueck Doherty, author of the brilliant Poustinia, is a great advocate of this approach. But I am a disciple of Thomas Merton. Reading his journals it is hard to imagine him without a pile of books. Perhaps this love of books stems from the Benedictine influence on my teenage years.

 A little like my changing ideas about education I think the more content-rich retreats have borne more fruit than the more ‘sit and do nothing’ retreats. Anyway, even with a lot of reading there is still plenty of time for sitting and being still (see notes on times below). 

I am, however, increasingly cautious about all the reading so many of us do in the great mystics as if we are going to achieve such heights or depths. Better that we spend as much time digesting the words of Scripture and leave spiritual experiences for God to decide. Pursuing such experiences is certainly very much against the tradition. Even contemplative prayer is a gift from God, a grace, for Christians. Not a technique to be developed. The New Testament is full of the wonderful gifts of the Spirit that we can expect to receive in prayer and as a normal part of our Christian lives. The ‘dark night of the soul’, is not something we should seek and is very different to the ordinary sadnesses, depressions and low moods of everybody’s life.

Fasting

It won’t always be possible to fast on retreat, probably only if you are self-catering. I have written about the importance of fasting before. For the Bible fasting and prayer are almost inseparable. If you can fast for part of the time on retreat it really is worth trying. This year (see below) I did two one day total fasts. I think it really changes and intensifies the experience of prayer and creates a certain spaciousness, as well as time. It adds to the sense of seriousness and that this is not a holiday.

“August 14, 1967. Vigil of the Assumption Said Mass quietly at the hermitage and fasted in the morning. (In the evening made too much rice and creole and am weighted down with it.”

Thomas Merton 

“Fasting clears the head and lessens the angustia, also brings order into one’s life.”

Thomas Merton

Sleep

Sleep deprivation is never a good idea. I need seven hours sleep a night, with, ideally one lie-in (9-10 hours) a week. I normally get this on a Saturday, so leave Morning Prayer, often even til after breakfast. On Saturdays I only pray one day-time Hour.

I usually get up at 5am so need to be in bed by 9:30 for sleep at 10 to get my full quota. On retreat this week I am getting up at 3:30 and aiming to get to bed at 8.

The reason I am doing that is the quality of time in the early hours and my energy in it. If I stayed up later in the evening instead it would be an extended preparation for sleep, my energy would be low. In the morning my energy is higher, there is a feeling of a whole day beginning, of movement into light that makes the prayer and quiet powerful. I was so excited for that on the first  morning this week like a child on Christmas Day I was awake by 2:20.

While I am here I am also getting a nap in the afternoon, just 30 minutes or so gives me extra sleep.

“February 7, 1966. F[east] of St. Romuald I don’t know what happens to time in the hermitage. Three and four hours in the pre-dawn go by like half an hour. Reading, meditation, a few notes, some coffee and toast–there is not much to show for it, but it is probably the most fruitful part of the day.”

Thomas Merton

Alcohol

There is a scene in the TV series Rev where the hero goes on retreat. I don’t remember the details, but there is a priest-friend with him and I think they both open their cases to reveal the bottle of gin or whiskey they have with them. For many of us what makes this funny is its truth. In the guest wing of the very monastery I am writing in I have drunk the pre-mixed gin and tonics another priest guest had brought with him. 

I find that even two glasses of alcohol interfere with my prayer – I can tell the difference and, as Herbert says and I have so often ignored, “take not the third glass.”

If we can’t do without alcohol on retreat we have to ask ourselves some serious questions.

E-communications

I take a break from Twitter and Facebook on retreat. But I do phone home daily and check texts and FB Messenger. This week I have heard two pieces of bad news which have been a cause for intercession, I am glad I heard them when I did. The internet has aided my study of Isaiah. It’s a tool. The test for me is to the extent that something enhances my prayer, or lessens the peace of my prayer.

Retreats are not …

Pilgrimages

Read Chaucer. I don’t think I have always got this right myself. I was looking at the pack for a pilgrimage I led from StAndrew, Earlsfield a few years ago. It is pretty full on liturgically. I wouldn’t put so much into a pilgrimage now. A pilgrimage is a social occasion and there should be plenty of time and space for that.

– Conferences

When we started our Sodality we called our annual three-day get together a retreat. We are now calling it our Annual Residential. If there is an intention to socialise, build community, talk, it is probably not really a retreat but a Spiritual Conference.

– Holidays / Time off

I often hear people say they need a retreat because they need rest. Only you can decide how much rest you need. But I would offer a challenge. That rest should be built into our weekly, monthly and yearly patterns separate to retreat time. The weekly sabbath rest is an important biblical principle. Holidays should not be missed. If you are so exhausted that you are desperate for rest probably time off is needed not a retreat. I would draw a subtle difference where there is spiritual exhaustion and renewal of the spirit is needed not total rest. Of course, if you need rest and genuinely the only way you are going to get it is to call it a retreat, then do so.

Meditation

In the Notebook section below I refer to ‘Meditation’. I don’t especially like this word, or even ‘Mindfulness’ (despite spending much of my life teaching it). They both sound too much like a method, a technique. 

In this time, I just sit. I sit in the lotus or half-lotus position on a zafu (meditation cushion) because it is the most stable posture I know. I can easily sit like this for 45 minutes and on retreat with massaging of my legs for an hour or more. The posture gives it a sort of intentionality, energy; it is not just sitting doing nothing. I like the Japanese term shikantaza “just sitting”, to describe this “methodless method”.  As I sit, the breathing naturally deepens but the breath is not the object. Neither is God, as if he is to be sought. He is present. What he chooses to do or not do is his business, not mine. I offer him this time as free gift.

“I am inclined to think that the more a thing is a “practice,” the less it is a prayer. You cannot do without practice, of course, but the better you get at it the more you forget practice and go beyond.”

Paul Quenon

I also sit on the zafu for the Office, but use a prayer stool for the Eucharist and Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, this enables me to prostrate more easily. When using the Jesus Prayer I sometimes stand and bow deeply to touch the floor at each invocation and prostrate with my forehead on the ground every 25 invocations. That helps my energy levels and keeps my body loose when I have been sitting for a long time. I often pray the Rosary while walking.

So all of this is quite a physical business!

Hard Work?

Well, I have probably put you off completely if you are new to this. If this all seems too much like hard work, I suppose yes, I am saying this is hard work. Paul Quenon, monk of Gethsemane in his brilliant book, In Praise of the Useless Life (quoted often here, as also his collections of poetry) comments on his following of the Rule of Saint Benedict:

“I follow—or stumble along—the “Benedictine way,” which approaches life mostly in terms of prayer, work, and reading. To follow all three of these essential principles to the fullest is real work, and indeed at times a hard battle! Key phrases found in the Rule of St. Benedict are “the labor of obedience,” “the strong, bright weapons of obedience,” “the instruments of good works.” It is only when the work of obedience is advanced and matured that we “run the way of God’s commandments in the unspeakable sweetness of God’s love.”

But he also goes on to talk about the ‘Holy Game’ and the element of play. I often say that liturgy, worship, is a rehearsal for the way God wants the world to be. A retreat is a bit like that too. It is liturgical time. God’s playground for us. Hard work can, of course, be relaxing and rewarding. I have ended this week’s retreat invigorated and energised. Making a good retreat, like doing anything ‘well’ can be deeply satisfying and very far from exhausting

Not Just for Clergy

While working with the leaders of the Anglican Religious Communities earlier this year I had an interesting conversation with the Abbot of Mucknell about the many guests they welcome there. 95%, he said, are clergy. And this is a complete reversal to the situation twenty years ago. I checked with other community leaders where there are significant guest facilitates. They all confirmed that the vast majority of guests are now clergy. There may, of course, be many explanations for this. The pressures of work. People being too busy to visit for weekends. But I wonder if those of us who preach and teach do so about retreats often enough?

***

ADVENT RETREAT 2019

“In the hermitage, one must pray or go to seed. The pretense of prayer will not suffice. Just sitting will not suffice. It has to be real–yet what can one do? Solitude puts you with your back to the wall (or your face to it!) and this is good. One prays to pray. And the reality of death.”

Thomas Merton

PART TWO – RETREAT JOURNAL

DAY 1

It’s a long drive from the north-west to West Sussex, but the lane to the monastery takes the retreatant through a half mile or so of woodland before arriving. That last stretch is always a powerful letting go. Once I’d arrived and received the warm welcome I got on with unpacking  and setting up the hermitage.

3:30 arrive

4:15 Eucharist – 

Mass said, the Eucharistic presence. It is you, Jesus, it is you present as gently as you can be, like the hand on the shoulder, not imposing. You are the guest as so often you were, invited here by words and signs.

Next to you. I place mum’s picture. She is not here, but she is present. In my breathing that she gave me. As you are, Jesus. breathing in: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God. Breathing out: have mercy on me a sinner.

Meditation

5:15 Evening Prayer Isaiah 1 -2

Followed by reading of the commentaries on the reading

Learn to do good,

seek justice.

Make the oppressed happy,

Defend the orphan,

argue the widow’s case.

1:29ff is the opposite of Psalm 1: a garden without water, a tree whose leaves wither.

6:30 Supper – soup and cheese

7:00 Reading (on Isaiah)

7:45 Compline – Isaiah 3-4

Followed by reading the commentaries

Chapter 4 unlike most translators Alter has this as poetry

5And the LORD shall create over all the sanctuary of Mount Zion 

and over its solemn assemblies 

a cloud by day 

and an effulgence of flaming fire by night, 

for over all the glory there shall be a canopy. 

6And a shelter it shall be 

as a shade by day from heat 

and a covert and refuge from pelting rain.

8:30 lectio divina on tomorrow’s Gospel Reading and first draft of my ‘todaysgospel’ tweet.

9:15 bed

DAY TWO

3:30 Rise, two cups of tea

Jesus Prayer with prostrations 20 minutes or so

“On me a sinner”: words that don’t make me feel shame, but human. Knowing the stupid things I have done. Love never diminished by any of them. There is a stage in friendship when you do or say something stupid, when your friend knows you for a fool, a sinner: and it matters but makes no difference. Or rather it does. It deepens. Then we can be undefended.

4:00. Vigils Isaiah 5 – 6

Opening parts of CWDP Morning Prayer

With the history psalms (104/105) forming two nocturns 

“Here I am, send me.”

Not a happy message:

“Go and say to this people: 

‘Indeed you must hear but you will not understand, 

indeed you must see but you will not know.’ 

10 Make the heart of this people obtuse 

and block its ears and seal its eyes. 

Lest it see with its eyes 

and with its ears hear 

and its heart understand 

and it turn back and be healed.”

Reading the commentaries.

A walk in the woods (20 minutes or so)

I put my cloak on. Envying Jewish friends their prayer shawls. “He shall cover you with his wings.”  (Ps 91:4) I am immersed in dark. Wrapped in light.

Suddenly I remember. thirty six years ago. My friend Danny (long since dead). Staying over, in the morning he passed me his talit to put on. Hugging me as the wool embraced me with its black bands and titzit. I pulled the crown together and kissed it as I had seen him do. Then we prayed. He in his tefillin, me in his talit. Shacharit and Matins simultaneously. Psalms we shared, melodies different. A cacophony for sure. When he died we had lost touch. I didn’t hear about it for months. Yet now I feel as close to him as when he put the talit around me and breathed on my face, his breath rich from the cheap wine we’d stayed up drinking. I wrap my cloak around me and weep. Strange how our little griefs can stand in for all our griefs.

Jakob Kr

Meditation – 45 minutes

Jesus Prayer with Prostrations

Blessed Sacrament Exposed – Adoration 30 minutes or so

7:45 Lauds / Morning Prayer Isaiah Chapters 7-8

Reading the commentaries

8:30 Prime

10:00 Terce Isaiah Chapters 9-10

Eucharist

12:00 Sext Isaiah Chapters 11-12

Reading the commentaries

Rosary – walking up and down outside in my cloak.

“The presence of Our Lady is important to me. Elusive but I think a reality in this hermitage. Here, though I do not agree with the medieval idea of Mediatrix apud Mediatorem [the Mediatrix with the Mediator] (without prejudice to her motherhood which is a much better statement and truth). Her influence is a demand of love, and no amount of talking will explain it. I need her and she is there. I should perhaps think of it more explicitly more often.”

Thomas Merton

Meditation – 30 minutes

Lunch – main meal of the day

Snooze – walk

2:30 None Isaiah 13-14

4:00 Adoration

5:00  Evening Prayer Isaiah Chapters 15-17

Meditation

Supper – soup and cheese

7:00 Compline Isaiah Chapters 18-21

lectio on the following day’s gospel

8:30 bed

DAY TWO

Part way through Vigils, about 4:30, a cock starts crowing on the farm next door. It continues for about 15 minutes.

The rain is falling hard. Rain in the woods always seem louder, deeper than anywhere else.

Merton’s festival of rain:

“What a thing it is to sit absolutely alone, in the forest, at night, cherished by this wonderful, unintelligible, perfectly innocent speech, the most comforting speech in the world, the talk that rain makes by itself all over the ridges, and the talk of the watercourses everywhere in the hollows! Nobody started it, nobody is going to stop it. It will talk as long as it wants, this rain. As long as it talks I am going to listen.”

Thomas Merton

The hermitage is cosy and very warm from the night storage heaters.

I open the large glass doors. It’s not that cold but it feels a shock.

I put my cassock and cloak on, the warmest clothes I have. Take the umbrella provided and walk in the woods. Enjoying the rain.

It is pitch black but I walk slowly on paths I know pretty well, barely needing to use the torch. I get to the little weir at the end of the pond. Although it is not a large fall of water it makes a suitably crashing noise in the dark and quiet – the thunder of waters. 

ISAIAH

Two pieces of advice are really helping me read Isaiah. The first is in Leslie Hoppe’s New Collegeville Bible Commentary volume on Isaiah. Like scholarship on the Psalms, the academic world has moved on from the granular source-critical stance. It is easy to get hung up on which sections are first, second or third Isaiah. Hoppe takes the canonical, final form seriously and identifies five sections of relatively similar length. She doesn’t mention it but, of course the psalms are also in five books, Matthew’s Gospel is sometimes seen as being in a pattern of five. Do all these reflect the final form of the Five Books of Moses, the Torah?

Each of Hoppe’s five sections relate to Jerusalem, making that the dominant motif.

1

Chapters 1 -12 Jerusalem’s Future

2

Chapters 13 – 27 Jerusalem and the Nations

3

Chapters 28 – 39

Judgement and Salvation for Jerusalem

4

Chapters 40 – 55 Jerusalem’s Liberation

5

Chapters 56 – 66 The New Jerusalem

Each section begins with an oracle of judgement and ends with a word of salvation.

Although the salvific endings are balanced by the final verse of the book which is dark indeed. Alter points out that when this section is read as the Haggadah (the second reading following the Torah) in the synagogue, verse 23 with it message of hope is repeated after verse 24 to end on a positive note.

Hoppe also identifies the two main motifs of the book as firstly, the typically Isaianic phrase for God “the Holy One of Israel”, what is so very clear is that this holiness consists not just or only in the being of God but in the justice he requires of his people. It is all too easy to think of social justice as something we read into Scripture. In fact justice is woven deeply into it.

The second motif is that of Jerusalem/Zion.

Hoppe recommends reading the text straight through without commentary.

This is a recommendation also made by Nicholas King in his Bible (which is a translation of the Septuagint). King makes ten recommendations which I won’t repeat in full here. However some key phrases:

  • Concentrate on the beauty of the prophet’s language
  • The entire scroll belongs together and should be read as a whole
  • In the text consolation only comes in the Exile, when Israel is recalling in a mess
  • Don’t sit on the fence or remain uninvolved
  • Allow your unhealthy images of God to be systematically demolished

Motyer in his The Prophecy of Isaiah, also divides the book other than by source critical means. His reading of Isaiah is profoundly Christological, he sees three themes: 

1 The Book of the King Chapters 1-37

2 The Book of the Servant Chapters 38-55

3 The Book of the Anointed Conqueror Chapters 56 – 66

Although this christological reading is helpful it does feel imposed on the book contrasting with the way in which Hoppe’s analysis emerges from the actual text.

Hoppe on Chapters 3 and 4: the wealthy are to blame for Israel’s fate. Strong portrait of the bejewelled rich. 

SERAPHIM: are serpents, angelic tradition is post-biblical

At  Vigils chapters 5 and 6. Six is the first real revelation to the prophet and includes the burning al image. I am so used to that image, and to thinking of it metaphorically that I think of it as painless.

Alter does this brilliantly, I like his “Woe to me, for I am undone” so much stronger than NRSV “I am lost”. Alter also refers to Alexander Pushkin’s poem “The Prophet” based on this chapter. It is stunning, here it is.

The Prophet

By Alexander Pushkin

Translated by A.Z. Foreman

My spirit was athirst for grace.

I wandered in a darkling land

And at a crossing of the ways

Beheld a six-wing’d Seraph stand.

With fingers light as dream at night

He brushed my eyes and they grew bright

Opening unto prophecies

Wild as a startled eagle’s eyes.

He touched my ears, and noise and sound

Poured into me from all around:

I heard the shudders of the sky,

The sweep of angel hosts on high,

The creep of beasts below in the seas,

The seep of sap in valley trees.

And leaning to my lips he wrung

Thereout my sinful slithered tongue

Of guile and idle caviling;

And with his bloody fingertips

He set between my wasting lips

A Serpent’s wise and forkèd sting.

And with his sword he cleft my chest

And ripped my quaking heart out whole,

And in my sundered breast he cast

A blazing shard of living coal.

There in the desert I lay dead

Until the voice from heaven said:

“Arise O Prophet! Work My will,

Thou that hast now perceived and heard.

On land and sea thy charge fulfill

And burn Man’s heart with this My Word.”

Source

7am I return from my walk. My cloak is soaking wet. I am breathless. Partly the fear: is there a mad axe-man in the woods? Standing on the bridge over the weir is breath-taking too. There are lights on in the next door hermitage and in the monastery in the distance. I am grateful for these companions in prayer. The monks too have prayed Vigils and are now back in their cells before Lauds.

I am grateful that I found this place when I was eighteen, for the times I have spent here. For the lives lived here. Later I will go to the monastery cemetery and pray for the dead. Gruff but loving Brother Mark, provider of tea and digestives. Charles the friend of the community who spent many years living and praying here. Fr Brian, the sweetest and warmest of smiles but brightly intelligent. My memories of him are mainly from his days at the monastery at Hove.  And Fr Gregory, so long Superior. About him complicated memories and feelings. On all the things that divide our church he and I disagreed. But he in many ways created the life here and all the gospel that it holds. As Isaiah knew it is a messy world. As today’s gospel (Matthew’s genealogy) makes clear:

Tamar

Rahab

Ruth

Wife of Uriah

Jeconiah and his brothers

After the walk I still need exercise, that helps with the sugar-hunger too. So 20 minutes of prostrations with Jesus Prayer works up a sweat.

8:45 

Light comes late on this dull December day. The dawn chorus just penetrates the sound of the rain. But as the trees emerge I am singing the Canticle from Baruch at Morning Prayer:

“The woods and every fragrant tree

Have shaded them at God’s command.”

Interesting essay by Torsten Uhlig in Interpreting Isaiah ed David G Firth et al

On the motif of ‘hardening’ of the heart in Is 6 (and elsewhere).

Brueggemann on Isaiah Chapters 7 and 8:

Two possible readings: historical or christological (virgin birth etc) but he offers a third;

The offer of faith

“Faith is to resist circumstances and to continue ‘a more excellent way’ a way with no guarantees beyond promises and the One who makes those promises.”

“The non-negotiable verdict of the prophet still lingers: No faith … no future.”

Hoppe; 

8: 7b-9

Wordplay

‘If you do not make yourself firm [in the Lord]

You will not be affirmed.’

Same Hebrew root as ‘mn from which we derive Amen

Isaiah 65:6 literally translated is that the Lord is “the God of Amen” [Alter makes the same point, notes]

Revelation 3:14: Jesus is “the Amen”

Immanu el

7:14, 8:8 and 10

Even here in the hermitage news comes in. One of my dearest friends is taken into hospital with a suspected stroke. The new Archbishop of York is announced; Stephen Cottrell. The very best of news.

Perhaps I should turn my phone off completely but somehow it seems better to have the world in here too.

Isaiah 10:20 “lean on him”

Brueggemann suggests old gospel song:

What a fellowship, what a joy divine

Leaning on the everlasting arms

What a blessedness, what a peace is mine

Leaning on the everlasting arms

Leaning, leaning

Safe and secure from all alarms

Leaning, leaning

Leaning on the everlasting arms

What have I to dread, what have I to fear

Leaning on the everlasting arms?

I have blessed peace with my Lord so near

Leaning on the everlasting arms

Leaning, leaning

Safe and secure from all alarms

Leaning, leaning

Leaning on the everlasting arms

YouTube:

Mahalia Jackson https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=3Mb0XA2BDx0

Lunch: avocado, tuna fish, mayonnaise – beef Bologna’s and peas – cheese – Brazil nuts, coconut and chocolate

11:3 

RSV: his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord

Alter: his very BREATH is in the fear of the Lord

Chapter 12 a short hymn of praise which is Canticle 27 on CWDP.  Although with the first verse omitted:

“I acclaim, You, O Lord, though you raged against me,

“Your wrath has withdrawn and You comforted me.”

How we sanitise it all!

None: Isaiah 13 – 14

Ch 13: 6 Shaddai

14:4b ceases  Heb. = Shabbat / rest

14:10-11

The oppressor is overturned

Complete reversal

Brueggemann “The reception committee of impotence is already gathering to greet the next oppressor. And so Jews maintain by such poetry the capacity to wait, to resist, and not to give in.”

Reflection on all the wrath in Isaiah: what might God be angry with me about?

The sort of anger we feel for those we love.

Vespers: Isaiah 15-18

Supper Chicken soup

Compline: 19-21

Containing, appropriately for the time of day:

Watchman, what of the night.

Beautiful Hebrew (Alter)

Shomer mah milaylah

Shomer mah mileyl 

“One must concede that this entire short prophecy is far too fragmentary to allow us to guess what it is about.” !

7:45 bed

DAY THREE

3:30 an owl outside, somewhere very close

I open the curtains, important to be surrounded by the dark as I pray

But aware as I do so that my light is polluting it

Vigils Isaiah 22–27 

(speeding up my reading so that there is more time to reflect on the whole thing at the end of the week)

Reading aloud from Alter’s translation which works very well,

I also brought AV with me and thought I might read that at the liturgy, but that doesn’t seem to be needed

Fasting today, just water, first food Thursday lunchtime, my fasts have been inconsistent since Lent, I need to get back on this. It intensifies the prayer, creates a space for it and an energy.

26:9:

With my life-breath I desired you by night,

With my spirit within me I sought you.

There is nothing quite like praying in the night. Tonight is still and dark. Not even the sound of rain. Just animals moving, the occasional bird. 

These chapters from Isaiah this morning and yesterday afternoon have been especially challenging to understand.

Briggs is very comforting on this:

“First, you cannot study everything. Much of chapters 13–33 is obscure. I rather like Walter Brueggemann’s comment regarding chapter 21, that it is ‘extraordinarily enigmatic and elusive and, given our present understandings, almost completely beyond comprehension. I take comfort in the surmise that likely the only people who attend to this poem are those, like myself, who attempt to write a commentary that does not permit skipping over the material.’ So we take comfort in that too, and skip over large sections.”

Key chapters demanding study:

6, 7 (especially 7.14), 9, 40, 53, 61,

And would require inclusion in a bible study, sermon series

Isaiah 7

“The Lord commissions Isaiah in v 3, and gives him an oracle to take to King Ahaz in vv 7–9. This includes the striking word-play, which translates rather nicely into English: ‘If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all’ (v9:‘imlo’ta’aminu/kilo’te’amenu) or, as NT Wright has suggested rather more idiomatically, ‘Trust or bust.’ In fact, when this Hebrew text was translated into Greek (in the Septuagint version as used by the early church), this line became, ‘If you do not believe, neither shall you understand.’ As such, it was often cited by Augustine in his famous description of Christian faith as the pursuit of the mysteries of God, captured in the Latin phrase, fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking understanding).”

Briggs

Read 2 Kings 16.5–20, on Ahaz’s reaction to Isaiah (he tries to make a deal with the Assyrians)

See Is 36-37 for where the historical events come to a head

See also 2 Chronicles 32 and 2 Kings 19

Briggs: chapter 6 does not function (whatever some commentaries suggest) as the opening call, chapters 1-4 prepare the way for it:

First, 5.7b carries a careful word-play, literally: He expected justice (mishpat) but behold: bloodshed (mispach) Righteousness (tsedaqah) but behold: a cry! (tse’aqah)

In ch 5 the NRSV ‘ah’ is inadequate ‘woe’ is better

6:11 ‘Till, when, O Master?’ How long, O Lord. 

Is highly significant.

[isn’t this what we all say in the midst of uncertainty / suffering]

And the answer is “until …:

And the gloom only rises in chapter 40

Briggs thinks of the putative three authors as three movements in a symphony

40 marks a shift to the servant, answering who will answer God’s call (ch 6) but mostly this is plural (except see 53)

55 – 66 ‘Unspectacular postscript’

61 a return to the anointed servant

Briggs: “It has always struck me as a relatively neglected aspect of the book of Isaiah that it wants to offer us such a broad range of visions of the life of faith among the people of God. The difficult bit today is holding on to the whole range and, even more, it is rightly discerning where in this vast narrative we find our own situations illuminated”

Briggs:

“It is, I suspect, easier to be visionary when you are heading somewhere or about to engage in some dramatic new project than it is when you are back home, working with the long-term issues of faithful living in the same old place. But it is dangerous to lift the Second Isaiah emphasis on vision and newness and transpose it to today without recognizing that a lot of our Christian living is about faithfulness in the place where God has put us, and that this kind of long-term and comparatively unspectacular faithfulness is just as important for many people much of the time.“

Corporate nature of the text:

“When preaching on ‘the armour of the Lord’ from Isaiah 59.15b–20, for example, I was struck by the way in which God’s armour is appropriated for the church as a whole community in Ephesians 6 rather than each individual wearing the full armour of God: it is as a whole church that we are corporately engaged in the mission of God as it is pictured in the book of Isaiah.”

In Firth et al Lyndsay Wilson on Wisdom in Isaiah: Proverbs 25:1 locates the collection of wisdom sayings in the time of Isaiah, some scholars even think Isaiah may have been among the wisdom school before entering the prophetic school; Isaiah certainly seems to inc some wisdom language, and a wisdom approach to Torah.

Vigils reading: 24-27 the apocalyptic

Strong movement 24 25

24 full of desolation yet even in the middle of the destruction some praise:

“It is they who shall raise their voice, sing gladly,

In God’s grandeur they shall shout from the sea”

And then trust emerges in ch 25:

God’s steadfast faithfulness

The Lord shall prepare a banquet

He swallows up the mantle (shroud)

He wipes away tears

Look! This is our God!

In whom we hoped and he has rescued us

More Trust in ch 26:

“a steadfast nature You guard in peace”

Jenni Williams  (‘The Kingdom of our God’)

“Essentially, this is what trust looks like: it is not so much  a state of mind as a choice about how to act.”

Brueggemann has it as:

(26:12) Those of steadfast mind you keep in peace:

In peace because they trust in you.

Jenni Williams draws attention to 26:12

“O Lord, grant peace to us,

For our every act you have wrought for us.”

How does God do our acts?

Is it all working out as God intended? Despite our need for repentance?

Keep coming back to this idea of God’s wrath (so strong in much of Isaiah) what might God be angry with me for/about?

Anger is what we feel for those we love and care about; it is easiest to show those we are close to. God being angry does not diminish his love for us!

Lauds Isaiah 28 – 30

The first antiphon for today:

My soul has yearned for you in the night,

And as the morning breaks, I watch for your coming.

As the night vigil moves to daylight.

The first psalm 88 with all its darkness

“in a palace of darkness in the mighty deeps

Will your wonders be known in the darkness

But as for me, Lord, I cry to you;

Even in the dawn my prayer comes early before you.

My best companion is now the darkness.”

Eaton

I love that last line. “My best companion is darkness”. Grail has it as “my only companion”. Sadly CWDP has an alternate reading: “hid my companions out of my sight.” Which seems to be from Coverdale.

S29:11-12 “Pray, read this.”

Ambrose recommended Augustine read Isaiah first when he was close to coming to faith; is this the origin/inspiration for tolle, lege must look up the Vulgate.

[Just done so, lege, but not tolle]

30:15 

In quietness and stillness you shall be rescued,

In calm and trust shall your valour be,

But you did not want it.

The final phrase is often omitted when quoting this!

***

A brighter day. Jesus P and prostrations outside as the sun breaks through the trees.

Early yet but hunger not too bad. The sugar high of the weekend was over after two days normal diet.

The perfect thing about praying outside is the sound of the water from the air. Pretty small scale really but definitely a torrent in sound.

***

On Is 28 Williams points out the wisdom language: pay attention, hear, instructed, teachers, counsel, wisdom: final words His Wisdom is great.

8:30 Prime

10am Terce Isaiah 31-32

Long walk in the sunshine.

Over the bridge across the weir the first house is interesting. Now a significant mansion with extensive grounds (it sold recently for £3m), it was once two labourers cottages.

The woodland  is called Furnace Wood and the house just Furnace. In the mid sixteenth century for about 75 years the area was the site of an iron foundry and blast furnace; latter in the eighteenth century bronze smelting was added for a short time. The woodland provided the fuel and there is evidence of coppiced chestnut still in some of the gardens of the houses that now occupy part of the site.  The pond is man-made for the furnace and at some later date there may have been a water mill. The dam decayed and the pond drained towards the end of the nineteenth century. In the early twentieth century the dam was re-built after the land had been sold with the invitation to create a trout pond, and indeed it is now used by a local fishing club.

On the side of the house a small plaque has appeared since I last walked this way. It commemorates Alfred Towes who died in the First World War and had previously lived in the house.

With very little googling it is easy to discover a little more about him. Born in about 1880 he was one of probably 10 children. His family lived in the house for just a few years before moving on. At some point he and his wife, Alice, moved to New South Wales, where address is available, when he signed up in 1917  he was listed as a gardener.  Travelling back to Europe he lasted only a week at the front before being killed. At some point, by 1921 his wife (and children?) moved back to England to a house that still stands, the Laurels at Copthorne, just a couple of miles from the house where Alfred had lived.

I check the phone directories and there are still Towes’s listed, perhaps his direct descendants or those of his brothers.

Of such dreams and tragedies are our human lives made.

The town of Mosman where Alive and Alfred lives is close to Sydney harbour. The plot they lived at looks very beautiful, even if it didn’t then have the swimming pool it has now. Was it a dream come true to them? In contrast to the nightmare of war he returned to Europe for? When Alice moves back to England did it seem like she had left her dream?

Reading Isaiah this week and getting my head around the shifts of Empires 2700 years ago I note that not much has changed. Those armies sweeping the Middle East in Isaiah’s time were made up of Alfreds with their dreams and tragedies too.

It doesn’t make me sad. Just glad to have located a human story. And as I walk in the woods, despite the aircraft flying over from Gatwick, they are idyllic, I image the sounds and smells of a blast furnace here half a millennium ago.

Read more local history here.

Eucharist

Sext Isaiah 33-36

Isaiah 33:17

A king in his beauty your eyes shall behold

Your heart shall murmur in awe.

Prose passage beginning Isaiah 36 see 2 K 18:13 to 2 K 20:19

Slept for 40 minutes: I wondered whether I would be able to make on an empty stomach; but no problem!

None Isaiah 37 – 40

38:10ff is one of the Canticles in the Roman Office (Tuesday II) and is rather fine “I said in the noon time of my days …” but it doesn’t appear in CWDP

ch 40 Comfort, comfort marks the beginning of what many call second or Deutero Isaiah

Hoppe makes an important point that Isaiah is using two images for Jerusalem’s future, one male and one female. The servant is male; Jerusalem is female. From here to 66 the “reader hears the story of a woman’s life from her abandonment by her husband and consequent childlessness to their recon isolation and the birth of many children.”

Going through the Canticles in CWDP and marking up a Bible with the verses used; they are quite chopped about; obviously any imprecation stuff omitted, but also anything particularly related to judgement. It gives a slightly swayed view of Isaiah, and indeed, of God.

There are 15 Canticles from Isaiah in CWDP, 16 in the Roman Office, 9 of them are similar texts but most not identical. CWDP chops the verses around much more and is much freer in creating Canticles by doing this. Both remove or don’t include texts about God’s wrath or judgement. It is a rather sanitised version of the prophet.

I hadn’t realised that in the Extended Vigil Office in the Roman rite several of the Isaiah canticles are repeats of those found at Morning Prayer.

Vespers Isaiah 41 – 42

11 Look, they shall be shamed and disgraced, 

all who are incensed against you, 

they shall be as naught and shall perish, 

those who contend with you. 

12You shall seek them and shall not find them, 

those who battle with you. 

They shall be as naught and as nothing, 

those who war against you. 

13For I am the LORD your God, 

holding your right hand, 

saying to you, 

Do not fear, I am helping you.

Hoppe makes an important point about 42:14

God in feminine role:

Now, I cry out like a woman in labour,

Gasping and panting.

Compline Isaiah 43 – 44

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you. 

I have called you by name, you are Mine. 

2Should you pass through water, I am with you, 

and through rivers—they shall not overwhelm you. 

Should you walk through fire, you shall not be singed, 

and flames shall not burn you. 

3For I am the LORD, your God, 

Very tired after not eating at all. It will be hard to get through to tomorrow lunchtime. But it does create a kind of spaciousness/lightness about the prayer.

DAY FOUR

3:30 Rise. A deep sleep but my head is pounding. It is always difficult to drink enough water when fasting. 

Finish lectio and tweet todaysgospel. Read Rachel Mann’s Rossetti book for today and tweet sentence from that.

Hunger strikes and sudden feeling of despair. Why am I wasting my life like this? Six days away from home, fasting, getting up in the middle of the night, when I get back I have four services on Sunday. On Monday I shall spend the day seeing sorcerers for Spiritual Direction. I could be with the people I love. Relaxing, enjoying the build up to Christmas.

I start Vigils heavily, unwillingly. But immediately the words strike.

In the darkness (very dark and rain outside) I pray “Reveal among us the light of your presence.”

And the psalms (104, 105) the story of creation and salvation speak.

Then the magnificent power of Isaiah, especially in the translation by Alter which reads aloud so well. In fact it makes RSV/NRSV/CWDP seem very flat indeed.

Vigils Isaiah 45-49

So many powerful lines and sections. This second movement of the book (‘second Isaiah’) really does contain the greatest poetry.

45:3

I will set before you treasures of darkness

And hidden store,

So that you may know I am the Lord.

Treasures of darkness is such a beautiful phrase. It will stay with me. Darkness will be the strong memory of this retreat. The long December nights. And they have produced treasures. Just as the darkness of our lives can.

45:15

Indeed, You are a God who hides

God of Israel, Rescuer.

47:5

Sit mute and come into darkness.

Another powerful line. Sit in silence.

49:15ff

15Does a woman forget her babe, 

have no mercy on the child of her womb? 

Though she forget, I will not forget you. 

16Why, on My palms I have inscribed you, 

Hoppe on 49:15: “It is difficult to find a more touching image of God’s love anywhere else in the Bible.”

Wow. So by the end of Vigils I feel the exact opposite of the emptiness I felt an hour ago. There is fullness. Perhaps I should give up everything and live as a hermit!

Such are the whims of our feelings. So taking that advice and after all those words I will take the prophets advice. Silence. Lights out. The Blessed Sacrament with a single candle. Adoration.

Sit mute and come into darkness. Invites the Holy One who sets before me the treasures of darkness from his hidden store, the God who hide.

Walk. In the dark and rain in the woods. To the weir. The thunder of mighty waters.

While I am out the day arrives. Sheep and geese emerge in the middle of the field next to my hermitage. On the wooden bridge I wallow in the all-consuming sound of water.

Walking in the woods I am also wallowing in the deep mud. Even though it is quite short the bottom 12” of my cloak are mud spattered. Memories of funerals. Once dry it will brush clean.

Back at the hermitage I had thought when I woke up hungry that I would break my fast at breakfast time. But now, praying and walking, I am enjoying the lightness. I will eat at lunchtime. I’ll fast again tomorrow, Friday, but will break my fast first thing on Saturday. Food will make me sleepy and I don’t need that for the drive north on Saturday afternoon.

Home stretch now on Isaiah. I will finish the read aloud at the Offices today, making tomorrow lighter liturgically. And also finish the verse by verse commentaries (Brueggemann, Williams, Hoppe) and begin to think about the bigger picture. The idea of Isaiah as a symphony with movements has really helped me, as has the five-fold division, rather than the somewhat artificial constructions of Deutero – Trito – Isaiah and as one writer put it the obvious need for Quarto- and Quinto- !

Strong themes from Isaiah so far:

Trust

Darkness

Hiddenness

Sin/judgement – God’s anger

Jerusalem

Morning Prayer (later than planned, my walk it turns out was 45 minutes, glad I didn’t have a clock/phone with me).

Reading: Isaiah 50 – 52

Strongest verse: 51:17

Awake, awake,

Rise up, Jerusalem,

You who have drunk from the hand of the LORD

The cup of his wrath

We are so phobic to the idea of God’s wrath, this must be something we have to reckon with. Isaiah is full of it!

The Suffering Servant in 51 -53

Prime

Terce Isaiah 53–55

53: the first of the songs of the suffering servant, powerful reminder of how these passages fit into the wider prophecy and record of rescue/salvation. These would make good canticles, a shame they are not used as such anywhere.

53:4-5 (Alter)

3Despised and shunned by people, 

a man of sorrows and visited by illness. 

And like one from whom the gaze is averted, 

despised, and we reckoned him naught. 

4Indeed, he has borne our illness, 

and our sorrows he has carried. 

But we had reckoned him plagued, 

God-stricken and tormented. 

5Yet he was wounded for our crimes, 

crushed for our transgressions. 

The chastisement that restored our well-being he bore, 

and through his bruising we were healed.

Hoppe: about 40 allusions or citations of this text in the NT

Sitting in these woods that would have been alive with the sound of a blast furnace a few centuries ago 54:16 is pertinent:

It is I who created the smith,

Who fans the charcoal fire ….

Walk

Up to All Saints’ Church in Crawley Down, sadly locked but in the churchyard there is a Towes grave. Frederick. Local history sites suggest this is / could be Alfred’s cousin. He died in 1921 but it is a military grave, so perhaps he died of injuries sustained in the war. No sign of a grave for Alfred’s wife. I may look in the church yard at St. John’s Copthorne on the way home.  A find a grave search finds nothing for here other, so perhaps she remarried?

Sext Isaiah 56 – 58

56:3 following the foreigner and eunuch accepted into Israel, no opposition between Jesus and the Hebrew Scriptures here

Fasting: is not this the fast I choose

Good corrective balance on a day I am indeed fasting:

Do I give my bread to the hungry?

Clothe the makes?

Lunch: Avocado, tuna, cream cheese, boiled egg; chilli con carne and peas – cheese and fig jam – Brazil nuts, coconut and dark chocolate 

and the immediate effect of lunch after 42 hours total fast: Sleep.

3pm None Isaiah 59 – 61

60

Partly CW Canticle 34

Alter:  “Rise, O Shine for your light has come. Often thought of with the next two chapters, as the core of Truro Isaiah, this poem picks up the motif of transcendent light from Second Isaiah and transforms it into an enthralling poetic vision of Zion magnificently restored. This vision is dramatically developed in the next two verses, in which the whole earth is imagined engulfed in darkness, and Zion’s brilliant dawn offers light for humankind.”

1Rise, O shine, for your light has come, 

and the glory of the LORD 

has dawned over you. 

2For, look, darkness covers the earth, 

and thick mist, the peoples, 

3but nations shall walk by your light,

 and kings by your dawning radiance.

60:15

19No more shall the sun be your light by day, 

nor the moon’s radiance shine for you, 

but the LORD shall be your everlasting light 

and your God become your splendour. 

20No more shall your sun set, 

your moon shall not go down. 

But the LORD shall be your everlasting light, 

and your mourning days shall be done.

See Rev 22:4-5

And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. Revelation 22:5

61v2

A day of vengeance for our God

The start of 61 forms CW Canticle 35

But This half verse is omitted:

Which is such a shame:

Lord, avenging God

Avenging God appear.

Psalm 93 (Grail)

The end of ch 61, verse 11, is, unusually used in two CW Canticles nos 35 and 36

61:4

Hoppe calls this ‘the priesthood of the poor’

Then listening to Bach. Really listening, not doing anything else. As Chrysogonus Waddell advised me in 1992. He took me to see Merton’s hermitage when I was at Gethsemane and so somehow Bach is always associated with hermit times in my mind.  I listen to settings of Isaiah, one I don’t remember listening to before of the Do not be afraid text.  Fürchte dich nicht. Very beautiful. 

And then Goldberg.

4:30 To revive me and getting the energy flowing Jesus Prayer and prostrations, then Adoration

Raining hard outside.

“January 2, 1966. Feast of Holy Name of Jesus It has been raining steadily for almost 36 hours. This morning toward the end of my meditation the rain was pouring down on the roof of the hermitage with great force and the woods resounded with tons of water falling out of the sky.”

Thomas Merton 

6pm Vespers Is 62 – 64

62: 4b ff

Part of CW Canticle 36, some very unCW language in Alter:

And your land shall be bedded

As a young man beds a virgin,

Your sons shall bed you …

Alter’s note says:

The One Bedded. Again, the transliteration, Beulah, became an English name. Most translations render it as “espoused,” but that is too formal and too decorous. This passive form of the verb baʿal does indicate a woman who has a husband (the noun baʿal), but it has a sexual connotation: Zion, the woman who has been forsaken, will now enjoy consummation again. The sexual implication of the term is clearly suggested in verse 5: “and a bridegroom’s rejoicing over the bride / shall your God rejoice over you.” 5. your sons shall bed you. This sounds inadvertently like incest (in the next line of poetry, it is rather God’s relationship with Israel that is analogous to the bridegroom’s relationship with the bride), but the intended idea is that the desolate land, personified as a woman, will be plowed and cultivated by its sons, as a young man is intimate with a virgin and makes her fruitful.”

63:1

In ensanguined garments (Alter): nice play on words

63:2

Alter: “the association between wine and blood is not only because of the colour red but also because a kenning for wine in biblical poetry, inherited from the Ugaritic is ‘blood of the grape’ (see Gen 49:1)”

And of course Eucharistic for Christians

Supper: Soup, cheese and Piccalilli, Brazil nuts, coconut and dark chocolate.

Short walk in the dark, wind and rain. Which at least ensures there are no dog walkers about. Pretty much had the woods to myself in this weather.

Meditation

9pm Compline Isaiah 65-66

And so Isaiah finished, at least the read aloud through is. And just wonderful it has been, never wearisome. Alter’s poetic sense is perfect, there is a lovely sharpness to his English and a sense of rhythm and metre. The language is spare.

And here to end with a koan from 65:1-2

I yielded oracles 

when they did not inquire, 

I was found 

when they did not seek Me. 

I said, “Here I am, here I am” 

to a nation not called by My name.

I spread out My hands 

all day long

Alter’s note: “2. I spread out My hands. This phrase continues the paradox of the previous verse because spreading out the hands is a gesture of prayer, and it is as though God, not the people, were praying.”

I didn’t expect this theme of darkness and hiddenness in Isaiah. He is a mystic – more than a visionary.

I shall chew on this.

65:13-14

Look, My servants shall eat 

and you shall hunger. 

Look, My servants shall drink 

and you shall thirst. Look, 

My servants shall rejoice 

and you shall be shamed. 

14Look, My servants shall sing gladly 

with a cheerful heart, 

and you shall cry out for heart’s pain 

and from a broken spirit howl.

This is a piece of great poetry, brilliantly tr by Alter. But also harsh.

A lot of Isaiah seems to be about consequences. And we don’t like that, we don’t want to be rejoicing while others mourn. Yet the end of the book precisely describes that contrast.

Chapter 66 v10ff provides CW Canticle 38 (and Divine Office Vigil canticle for Christmas and the Presentation), entirely suitable for this with its mention of babies and mothers.

9:30pm bed

DAY FIVE

3:30am Rise

And it is still raining. People often comment on the ubiquity of rain in Merton’s journals. One reason must surely be quite simple: when you live in a one storey building the sound of the rain on the roof is significant, magnified by trees and making a difference to the possibility of a walk getting out of a small building.

Strangely, despite the restrictions it imposes the rain feels like a friend. Comforting, consoling, protecting. A barrier to others coming into the woods.

Rain Mass 

Enormous choir 

in monotone Ordinary 

of rain 

poured down massive chant. 

Sacred Mass 

soon slacked off 

in soft diminuendo, 

soaking into mute, 

sated grass.

Paul Quenon

Two cups of tea. 

Fasting day today. Which I will break after Morning Prayer tomorrow.

Jesus Prayer with Prostrations

Then I can’t resist it. I go straight out before Vigils to walk in the dark “fired by love’s urgent longing”. Walking straight to the weir without torch.

Dark and thundering sound. God gives treasures of darkness.

I am wearing my cloak for the walk.

THE COWL–

solemn as chant, 

one sweep of fabric 

from head to foot. 

Cowls hanging 

on a row of pegs–

tall disembodied spirits 

holding shadows 

deep in the folds 

waiting for light, 

for light to shift 

waiting for a bell 

for the reach 

of my hand 

to spread out 

the slow wings, 

release the shadows 

and envelope 

my prayer-hungry body 

with light.

Paul Quenon

Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High 

and abides under the shadow of the Almighty,

Shall say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my strong-hold, 

my God, in whom I put my trust.’

Psalm 91

When I get back to the hermitage it is nearly 6am. No Vigils. The water has prayed all the words I need. Rain and weir. Darkness absorbing them.

Meditation

Adoration

In the morning I come before you 

watching and waiting 

watching 

then 

waiting 

waiting 

and 

watching 

tired of watching 

I wait. 

When I waited 

enough 

I watch. 

When watch and wait 

are not enough 

I disregard enough 

for You are 

enough. 

When You are 

enough 

I am 

enough 

when I am 

enough 

You are 

enough 

enough 

that You are 

watching and waiting 

and my 

watching and waiting 

is Your 

watching and waiting.

Paul Quenon

7:15 Morning Prayer

“fasting is more of a celebration for me. There is an interior silence, a clear-headedness you do not get except by fasting. We are a society of gluttons.”

“fasting is excellent and clarifies the mind.”

Thomas Merton

8am Prime

9am Terce

Today feels lighter, clearer. The Office shorter without long chunks of Isaiah.

Final day before leaving tomorrow gives it a poignancy. Could I live like this for a month, a year ? Who knows. I don’t see any way of that happening.

“To come into solitude to discard both illusions, public and private, and to seek God, and to have no (exterior) self and no aims or claims, or pretensions, this is “right” (if the word means anything here)–it is what solitude means. But the problem is precisely that I still tend to come into solitude with an impure love, that is to say with “aims.” And with the “I” that can have aims. Time and quiet do much to dispel all this nonsense.”

Thomas Merton 

Jesus Prayer with prostrations

More tea. I must be careful how much I drink.

July 13, 1967 Fasting again but this time drank some tea, which makes all the difference in so far as keeping one’s mind alive goes.”

Thomas Merton 

In the afternoons Turmeric tea is best, or Mint. They feel like food!

The fasting is so helpful. But the question is how to do it on a Friday when Ftiday evening is normally a sociable time? Doing it on another day would break the link with the crucifixion. I could eat just lunch on a Thursday but with a Wednesday fast that doesn’t give time to recover and often lunch is hard at work. Fasting is kind of nakedness. It leaves everything bare. It also reveals the shallowness and unreality of ‘moods’.

12 noon Sext and Eucharist

The total fast before receiving Communion makes a very beautiful offering. Eating nothing until receiving.

In today’s Gospel Mary says here I am. 

That’s what Isaiah says (6:8), that is abandonment. 

Send me.

Adoration

With those two key prayers:

My Lord God,

I have no idea where I am going.

I do not see the road ahead of me.

I cannot know for certain where it will end.

nor do I really know myself,

and the fact that I think I am following your will

does not mean that I am actually doing so.

But I believe that the desire to please you

does in fact please you.

And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.

I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.

And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,

though I may know nothing about it.

Therefore will I trust you always though

I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.

I will not fear, for you are ever with me,

and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

Father,
I abandon myself into your hands;
do with me what you will.
Whatever you may do, I thank you:
I am ready for all, I accept all.

Let only your will be done in me,
and in all your creatures –
I wish no more than this, O Lord.

Into your hands I commend my soul:
I offer it to you with all the love of my heart,
for I love you, Lord, and so need to give myself,
to surrender myself into your hands without reserve,
and with boundless confidence,
for you are my Father.

Mon Père,

Je m’abandonne à toi,

fais de moi ce qu’il te plaira.

Quoi que tu fasses moi, je te remercie.

Je suis prêt à tout, j’accepte tout.

Pourvu que ta volonté se fasse en moi,

en toutes tes créatures,

je ne désire rien d’autre, mon Dieu.

Je remets mon âme entre tes mains.

Je te la donne, mon Dieu, avec tout l’amour de mon coeur,

parce que je t’aime, et que ce m’est un besoin d’amour de me donner,

de me remettre entre tes mains sans mesure,

avec infinie confiance

car tu es mon Père.

Charles de Foucauld

2pm None

Adoration

Ending with Jesus Prayer with prostrations

Walk: past Furnace into the two private roads that grew up there in the pre WW2 period. Many grand houses but still some wooden framed bungalows that used to be weekend homes. The simple bungalow that is the heart of the monastery buildings would have fitted in well. That makeshift quality is always something that has attracted me to the monastic community here. Nothing is picturesque. Even in my little hermitage the crockery is the sort of stuff that would be thrown out after the jumble sale. No earthenware monastic look!

Charles de Foucauld wrote:

“I no longer want a monastery which is too secure, I want a small monastery, like the house of a poor workman who is not sure if tomorrow he will find work and bread, who with all his being shares the suffering of the world.”

Final few hours now. Reading Isaiah unadorned. Reflecting on the dark. So strong a theme as the solstice arrives just as my retreat ends. It is so appropriate after a dark year to look forward to days growing longer, light to strengthen. 

THE NIGHT OF DESTINY 

In my ending 

is my meaning 

Says the season. 

No clock: 

Only the heart’s blood 

Only the word. 

O lamp 

Weak friend In the knowing night! 

O tongue of flame 

Under the heart 

Speak softly: 

For love is black 

Says the season. 

The red and sable letters 

On the solemn page 

Fill the small circle of seeing. 

Long dark—

And the weak life 

Of oil. 

Who holds the homeless light secure 

In the deep heart’s room? 

Midnight! 

Kissed with flame! 

See! See! 

My love is darkness! 

Only in the Void 

Are all ways one: 

Only in the night 

Are all the lost Found. 

In my ending is my meaning.

Thomas Merton 

6pm Vespers

Rosary and Adoration

As a Friday evening entertainment I watched Seeking God: the Way of the Monk a 1995 film about Christ in the Desert Monastery. It is wonderful but very dated. The community is much more traditional now with normal habits and Latin chant. But shows a certain phase in their life Abbot Philip as wise then as he is now. Distrustful of mystical experiences. Yes indeed!

8pm Compline

Meditation 

 9:30 bed 

DAY SIX

No alarm set

Woke at 3:30 exactly. Rain still thundering down.

Today’s gospel is Mary hastening to Elizabeth.

Finishing my retreat what do I need to do immediately?

5:30 Morning Prayer

It was Paul Bayes’ book that made me start saying the creed daily at Matins and Evensong. Saying these words in the dark is very powerful. Against the face of dark we say the words. Against all evidence. We trust. Just as Jerusalem’s citizens seeing the destruction of everything they held dear must have felt. God’s judgement is clear. 

6:30 Eucharist 

Still dark.

I can’t stay. The days will get longer. The night will retreat.

There is no war that will not obey this cup of Blood.

Yet in the middle of this murderous season 

Great Christ, my fingers touch Thy wheat 

And hold Thee hidden in the compass of Thy paper sun.

There is no war will not obey this cup of Blood,

This wine in which I sink Thy words, in the anonymous dawn! 

I hear a Sovereign talking in my arteries 

Reversing, with His Promises, all things 

That now go on with fire and thunder. 

His Truth is greater than disaster. 

His Peace imposes silence on the evidence against us.

from SENESCENTE MUNDO

Thomas Merton 

I prayed the whole of the poem as the invitation to communion and the line:

Here in my hands I hold that secret Easter.”

After each of the words of consecration.

The whole poem is in the collection In the Dark Before Dawn.

Breakfast : breaking the fast: avocado with Piccalilli. Cheese omelette, cheese with fig pickle, Brazil nuts, coconut and dark chocolate 

Prime

Preparing to leave

Car packed

Hermitage cleaned

Sheets and linens swapped

Monastic life is always detail and routine. These packages of sheets, linens, towels and cloths carefully labelled:

10am Terce 

10:30 prayer in the community chapel

11am Monastery Mass

DEPARTURE 

Surprise: How much Merton / Gethsemane there has been this week. Hermitage, rain and dark are pretty much central to his stuff I suppose.

Immersing myself in Isaiah has been total joy. I shall do some more of this between now and Epiphany. But it is so central to the gospel that having a clearer picture of it is already making a difference to my praying of the liturgy.

What I fantasise about taking away with me from this retreat:

  • getting up in the night, wallowing in darkness, aloneness
  • rain
  • The rhythm of the double Wednesday-Friday fast
  • Total immersion in Scripture
  • The sound of the weir

What I can take away with me:

  • Isaiah, I think of him, whatever some scholars say, as one man, speaking with different voices. Passionate. Poet. But matter of fact about God’s wrath. It is the consequence of human actions. God bears no grudge. Is not malicious.
  • Isaiah as mystic. Lover of the night and darkness. Chewer on koans. 
  • Something about how Jesus as suffering servant / rescuer (Saviour) is so intimately related to Jerusalem, even in this ancient prophecy. Church/Jerusalem are Jesus. 
  • God’s wrath so important. This is a koan for me. 
  • Fasting: going to try Mondays and Wednesdays and fast til the evening on Fridays. 

***

Books used

Liturgy for the Creation Season

Liturgy of Creation Anyone who has been in a pub with me when a pub quiz begins knows that I don’t hang around for long. What they may not know are the bad experiences that have given me a lifelong aversion to quizzes. The first when I was 12 was a competitive inter school quiz. As the year rep on our team I did well on politics, history, religion and even music. But then came sport. ‘What sport takes place at Brands Hatch’. In a moment of ignorant panic I called out ‘rock climbing’. The whole school  fell about laughing and even now people who remember me from then are known to whisper those two words teasingly. The second was just after I’d been ordained priest. I was in a pub with my brother-in-law. We joined a team and did well at History, General Knowledge and so on. Then came the Religion round. In my clerical collar I could hardly avoid appearing to be the expert. ‘What did God make on the fifth day of creation?’ My stab in the dark was not successful. My brother-in-law never lets me forget. I have however done much, since then, to improve my knowledge of the first account of creation. Of the making of liturgical seasons it can sometimes feel there is no end. Fortunately the ‘kingdom season’ has not really caught on and most of us have been able to enjoy the eschatological themes of the end of the liturgical year without changing liturgical colours and managing quite well in green vestments from the Baptism to the Presentation. Green vestments seem especially appropriate in what some describe as the ‘Creation season’ from 1st September to the 4th October. Actually I think this is one of the most sensible ideas for a new ‘season’ and draws out themes which are often underplayed in the liturgy. In light of the threat to the environment and planet it is more important than ever that we not only celebrate creation but repent of our abuse of it. There are many resources available for this season which has been encouraged by the Pope and the Ecumenical Patriarch. Common Worship: Times and Seasons is excellent and a simple Google search reveals many more resources. These are all very useful for adding a ‘creation’ flavour to these Sunday’s in Ordinary Time or for compiling a special liturgy. For those who use the Roman Missal appropriate Masses for the ferial days of this season include the two formulas for the Sanctification of Human Labour (pp.1353-1355) At Seed Time (p. 1355 and 1356) After the Harvest (p.1357), For Those Suffering Hunger (p.1365-1366) For Rain, (p.1367). Some of the elements in the traditional liturgy provide rich resources for use at this time and could give the Daily Office a creation theme throughout the period. It is these I will highlight here. The most obvious is the canticle Benedicite which for Anglicans was one of the invariable canticles of Matins (with the Te Deum as an alternative) throughout the year. It is repeated on all Sunday’s and Solemnities in the Roman Office and is given as an Opening Psalm for Sundays in Ordinary Time in Common Worship. Benedicite is a text worth memorising, so might well be usable daily from 1st September to October 4th. There are many simple musical settings. Here is a simple tone (I think from Douai Abbey) set to the Common Worship text:

This antiphon and tone are from Conception Abbey and is a reminder of the origins of this Canticle:

There are many Anglican Chant settings and recordings of Benedicite. Not least the simple ones in The Manual of Plainsong, here to the lovely Peregrine tone:

But the memory of my ignorance at a pub quiz directs me to the seven days of creation. It is surprising in some ways that these haven’t figured more highly in Christian or Jewish liturgy. The most recent Liberal Jewish prayer book (siddur) in the UK Siddur Lev Chadash (1995) does include the appropriate section of Genesis 1 in the daily morning service:

The notes state “The idea of reading on each day of the week the relevant section of the Creation Story is a revival of an ancient practice (of the Ma’amadot, lay prayer-groups, of Temple times; cf. M.Ta’anit 4:2f.” (page 665). I once tried to use the seven days as a set of invitatory antiphons:

The texts are a bit long really, and lose the sense of a call to worship. The most obvious place  where the western liturgical tradition commemorates the seven days of creation is in the hymns at vespers from Epiphany to Lent. They are in the English Hymnal as hymn numbers 58 to 62. Modern versions are in the Stanbrook Abbey Hymnal and by Aelred-Seton Shanley Obl.OSB Cam. The latter are to be found in the music for the Office book posted earlier on this blog and as a series of pictures below which also includes the English Hymnal texts and a modern use of the days of creation in the office of the Jerusalem Community in Paris. These are the work of the Dominican Andre Gouzes for his complete setting of a French language office as the Liturgie Chorale du People de Dieu. These chants work well as an alternative to the Opening Psalm / Invitatory at Morning Prayer / Lauds or could be used as a hymn at Prayer During the Day during the Creation Season. At the very least the Genesis text could replace the short reading at Prayer During the Day or Lauds/Vespers, or Psalm 104 with its magnificent creation themes could be used as an additional psalm at the beginning of Evening Prayer throughout the season. (Apologies for the spell check marks here, up date in due course…)